Is it possible to go an entire college basketball game without a forced turnover? The Washington State Cougars and Cal Golden Bears may be aiming for just that on Sunday afternoon in Berkeley (3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). Both sides rank near the bottom nationally in opponent turnover percentage - WSU's opponents have given the ball away just under 16 percent of the time (333rd), while Cal foes have turned it over on barely 15 percent of possessions (348th).
Did I mention that Cal also turns it over just 15 percent of the time itself, good for ninth-best nationally? Don't expect the Cougars to benefit much from turnovers against the Golden Bears, and don't expect them to see much pressure either.
One of the few guys that does create steals for Cal is guard Tyrone Wallace, but it's actually the junior's offense that makes him the most important player on Cal's roster.
There aren't many players in the Pac-12, possibly only Askia Booker at Colorado, that carry a larger burden offensively than Wallace. He leads the Golden Bears in shot percentage, taking 31 percent of the looks while he is on the floor. Wallace is also on the floor a lot, logging a team-high 85 percent of possible minutes this season.
Wallace is the team's primary distributor, assisting on 27 percent of the baskets during his minutes. Overall, he is responsible for the end of 32 percent of Cal's possessions, second-most in the conference and 21st nationally.
So, much like Chasson Randle at Stanford, Wallace's play may determine if heavy-underdog WSU can stay with Cal on the road. Randle struggled for a half against the Cougs, and WSU hung around. He turned it on, and the Cardinal pulled away.
Don't get me wrong, Cal has other good players. On the perimeter, WSU will have to contend with sharpshooter Jordan Mathews. On the interior, David Kravish will get plenty of shots. But it really comes down to Wallace - if he is on, which means getting open looks for himself and his teammates, Cal's offense will be tough for WSU to match.
And the truth is that the minimum offensive output required from Cal to win this game isn't that high, because the Golden Bear defense is excellent.
Cal ranks 33rd in adjusted defensive efficiency on the strength of the 20th-best effective field goal percentage allowed. The Golden Bears have shut down both the inside and outside, allowing opponents just 26 percent on 3s and 43 percent on 2s. Even more impressive has been Cal's ability to corral all those misses - the Golden Bears are grabbing 78 percent of them, third-best nationally (Wallace also happens to be the team's best defensive rebounder).
As Jeff Nusser pointed out in his Stanford recap, WSU struggles when it doesn't hit shots at a high rate because it isn't really good enough at anything else to make up for it. The Cougs aren't going to force turnovers, especially against Cal. And they definitely aren't going to get many second chances against the Golden Bears.
Expect this to be another frustrating shooting performance for WSU where it seems that they are doing some other things right, such as limiting turnovers and getting the free throw line. But in reality the poor shooting is Cal's ultimate goal at the expense of other defensive categories.
Looking for a sliver of hope, Coug fans? Shooting is often the most volatile and unpredictable of basketball's major factors. So it isn't out of the question that WSU just heats up in spite of the defense. That's a long shot, but pretty much any Cougar conference win this season will need to be accompanied by something that was unexpected.